My Friends in Kibera

Note: The images in this post are not my own. I didn’t take my camera to Kibera, because the people there are distrustful of people with camera’s as many of them have been exploited for their poverty and often dehumanized in the images portrayed by the media. The images below are taken from legitimate sources that were granted permission to take the photos by those in them. This post is not a show & tell, but it is a look up-close at a set of lives that often go ignored by our planet’s 6 billion tenants.

Monday at 5pm, I finished work a little bit early, and I walked through the compound until Father Moses said “yalla! shall we go?” And so we took off. This was by far what I’d been looking forward to the most by coming here, and finally I was about to take part in this service. We were on our way to Kibera, the largest and most densely populated slum, in East Africa. The first time I ever visited here was in 1999, it was my 2nd DAY in Kenya when we were brought here to have a fellowship meeting with some of the people out there, and the images from that time are forever burned in my memory. Somehow, the neighborhood seemed a little less foreign, this 2nd time around. In fact, I felt rather comfortable. Kibera is mentioned in Sarah McLachlan’s video “World On Fire”

Kibera, Kenya – East Africa’s largest slum. 800,000 people living in 1 square mile. 1 square mile = Central Park, New York City.
A producer would earn $7,500. This could buy 6 months of medicine for 5000 patients.
He is hungry but his body can’t absorb the food.
The production company = $22,500. Instead Kibera will get a 12 room clinic.
So that is where all the money went.

This was part of Fr. Moses’ weekly visit to the homeless youth in Kibera. In Kenya they’re referred to as “The Street Boys”. These are young men between the ages of 15 and 21 who for whatever reason, are homeless. Some have run away, some have been orphaned and have no relatives who care enough to take them in. These young men are considered outcasts in this place: untouchable. They’re known as theives, drug addicts, and are often ignored, rejected, and abandoned. Fr. Moses loves them.

Back in June, the church here had a medical campaign, and Fr. Moses noticed a young man by the tent kinda staring in, and Fr. Moses noticed he needed to be cleaned. Infected cuts, and fingernails that hadn’t been cut in many, many weeks. So Fr. Moses took him and cleaned him up, and others came around. Before you knew it, there were four, and Fr. Moses and them were talking about life and they each told him their story, of how they ended up in the streets. They asked him to come back again, and every Monday since then, He’s been hanging out with them. Depending on how he finds them, will depend on what they do. Sometimes he’ll find one of them beaten, he’ll take him back to his home, get him bandaged up, feed him, and take him back. If everyone’s in a good mood, maybe they’ll play soccer, or have a spiritual talk, or just eat together. If he finds them sniffing glue (which is the main addiction that these guys suffer), he’s kinda harsh with them. But they see him as a father. They are the fatherless, and they are often taken aback by how much they’re loved.

So we pull up to a less busy area, and I see Father Moses just smiling. From behind a delapadated kiosk, walks a man who runs to Fr. Moses and hugs him and says he’ll go and get the others. A boy, who looked rather young, but had the confidence of a lion walked up to Fr. Moses and said “I know you. You’re Fr. Moses from Coptic. I know you come here every week.” “So what’s your name?” Fr. Moses replied. “My name is John. Please help me find work. I need a job.” Fr. Moses asked him “How old are you?”, and the young man replied “19” to which Fr. Moses looked at him with a grin and said “Why don’t I believe you?” and the kid got nervous and said “well.. I am… I am 19” and started laughing.

Often times younger kids will lie about their age so they can find work, in order to survive.

Fr. Moses just put his arm around the kid and held his hand, and said “Come meet with us tonight.” A few others arrived, all running to Father Moses, and then began greeting me as well. These are the rough kids you’ll see on the street corners, but don’t let looks deceive you. It’s easy for anyone to pass judgement on them, if they’re a judgmental person, which I know I can be at times. But being that up-close, you realize how sharp, how beautiful, and how deep these young men are. You realize that they are brave, loving, skillful, adaptable and modest.

I put my arm around the little one, and the way he clung to me, made me wonder if these guys ever get shown any kind of affection. They’re so used to having people shove nickels in their hand and pushing them away. It was a sincere privilege to have been part of this.

We went into a hotel which was pretty much a room with a bunch of park benches, where Fr. Moses gave them a little talk about individuality, and how each one of them is special in the eyes of God. Fr. Moses needed a translator, and it was just fun to see a couple of the guys bickering over who would translate. It was telling of an even greater need than food or shelter, but a need to feel important, to contribute, to do something meaningful.

Father Moses invited them all to the church the next day for a movie and dinner, but he left out one important detail. He forgot to tell me, that he expected me to be in charge of the gathering! Tuesday afternoon, when I asked Fr. Moses what the plan was for the movie that night, he looked at me and replied, “you tell me”.  Minor panic ensued.

I found Ellie, my old friend from back in the day, who now has a wife and 2 children. And Ellie and I shared in the work in the few hours before they came. We cleaned up the hall, set up the VCR and projector, picked a movie, and got the kitchen staff ready to cook up a meal.

One thing that struck me, was the movie selection we had to choose from. After going through a few VHS tapes, various low budget saint biographies produced in Egypt, and random public service announcements about the dangers of drinking, gambling, and other vices we love. We ended up choosing the one about how “drinking is bad”.  I was stunned.  We give these guys our scraps of food, clothing, and our loose change, and now art, too? Don’t these guys deserve to watch a decent movie, something actually entertaining?

And 30 minutes earlier, they arrived. And we sat together, arm in arm, talking, laughing, getting to know one another. There’s Z, tall, 20 years old, unforgettable smile, who wears a baseball cap. There’s Ro, who’s a little shorter, with a tough-guy kinda look, but soft hearted. Francis, the eldest of them, 34 y/o. Maraj, “keepin’ it chill”, chewing casually on a toothpick. There was Samu who they call “D”.Samu has something really special about him, something in his eyes, and the way he looks at you when he speaks. He hungers for something great, and I hope one day he’ll get there. Around the side, sat Kamau-James, the little one who saw me from afar and shouted “Pauloooooo!”, with a lot of warmth, but later, he and I would have an exchange of words.

One thing Fr. Moses is not keen on, and that’s giving out money when they ask. And it’s not just because of the fear of drug-use or whatever, but he doesn’t want to instill in their heads that they’re beggars. He insists that they’re not beggars, and therefore, they cannot always be used to expecting hand-outs. He will feed them when they’re hungry, and clothe them when they have nothing to wear, and treat them when their sick, and love them when they’re lonely, but to give a coin when they ask, he feels that demeans them. It demeans them while he desires to uplift them. So Kamau was being stubborn with me concerning my giving him 10 shillings, and to me, i wanted to give him 2000 shillings, but it’s the principle that i’m learning, that i’m tryin to stick with.

I want Kamau to continue coming and being involved in this group of guys. Maybe he can end up like Ernest, a young homeless man who had been active in a support-type group, gained some leadership skills, showed responsibility, integrity, and then got a scholarship and now has a chance at leaving the street life behind.

After Kamau, sat Samu and then John.  He wore a yellow hat, and had some sort of quiet energy. He was someone who I felt had a great deal of self respect and gathered that respect from others in the group. Then right next to me was a late-comer, Nicholas, who thought it was hilarious when i told him that Americans use the shortened “Nick” for his own name.

And on the other side of me was Nathan. Nathan stepped up last night. We tried to instill an idea of accountability among the men. Where one can be responsible for informing the other men if there is a meeting. Little bits of leadership, responsibility, ownership of roles. We wanna help these men in some way, with things that will last longer than money or food.

As the old saying goes “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll open up a Red Lobster.”

The night ended with laughs, and hugs, and it was a love-fest to say the least. They had a great time, and we dined together on Ugali and Sukuma wiki.

We then spoke about Ellie and I leading a weekly support group for them, in addition to Fr. Moses’ visits on their turf. “Daddy” told me he wants to learn the arts. I told him I wanted to learn Swahili. Maybe there’s a lot we can share over here.

I really can’t describe what it was like hanging out with these guys. There is a spark that I’ve never seen in a group of young men before. It’s just incredibly sad, because their circumstances are against them like an elephant reclining on a spider, yet I’ve seen mountains move in my lifetime, and I know that with this support-group, that we just got approval for, something might actually happen.

Something might just happen.

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